Over the years I’ve read lots of stories about people who knew exactly who and what they were going to be by the time they were done teething. In fact, I envy anybody who can make their way through childhood and adolescence with that level of confidence. In any case, it did become clear early on that I was a creative person, but when you’re a kid growing up in suburban Minneapolis, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll be starting your own design firm at the age of 22, let alone joining the Oprah Winfrey team, flying all over the country doing makeovers, writing books, producing films, hosting your own TV show, and developing a home design collection that’s accessible to everyone. I don’t know where you were in junior high, but I was way too busy praying for clear skin and debating whether Madonna was really better than Cyndi Lauper to worry about the big picture.
I did know I felt out of place, and restless, and adventurous in a way that some of my friends did not, and I knew there were things I wanted to see and do and experience in my life that most of the people around me could take or leave. I always sort of sensed there was a wider world out there—something beyond just taking the bus to and from Hebrew school.
I may have resisted acknowledging it throughout my teenage years, but I now understand that the joy I take in transforming interiors comes from my mom, an interior designer, who has always been about creating a beautiful home. Rooms in our house were in perpetual motion. Fabric samples were laid out everywhere. Overnight a storeroom would become a spare bedroom; a spare bedroom, a TV watching den; a den, a spot for wrapping presents. If my mother wanted to hang a huge canvas in the living room, but couldn’t find a painting she could afford, or one she loved enough, she would just paint something herself.
My mother had, and has to this day, an unbelievable sense of scale. She’s an artist who is amazingly skilled at laying out a space. Not only are her rooms comfortable; they make perfect sense. Thanks to her, my earliest memories center around design, collecting, and figuring out where everything should go. While other kids were studying algebra, I was studying my mom’s collection of tortoise glass. Instead of watching The Love Boat, I was watching as she pounded hooks into the living room wall, or helping to stuff a newly reupholstered chair into the trunk of her car.
But it wasn’t only my mother. For my dad, an entrepreneur and businessman, everything had to be the best, the finest, the top of the line. His shirts and suits back in the 1980s were all custom-made and immaculately tailored. His shoes were Italian, his cars were hot. As a founder of the National Sports Collectors Convention, he was able to bring his business sense in line with his collector’s mentality, a nostalgist’s love for old, high-quality things. I remember him saying to me, “You have to dress well in this world, because everyone notices what you’re wearing and they make a decision about you immediately. And anything you say after that, well, if they’re smart, people will listen, even if they’ve already sized you up—but Nate, most people are not that smart.”
With parents like these, it was hard not to absorb a love of design, harmony, precision, quality, and beauty. Their lessons lasted—their marriage did not.
My parents split up when I was 2 years old. We were living in Los Angeles at the time, and after the divorce, my mother and I returned to Minnesota, where her parents lived, and where she eventually met and married my stepfather. Throughout my childhood, I would fly back to California to visit my dad. I was what the airlines called an “unaccompanied minor.” Over time I developed such precocious assurance that when the flight crew told me they could “release me only to a parent or guardian, I would answer with all the breeziness of a 6-year-old kid, “It’s okay, my father is meeting me downstairs. I know what to do.” And then I’d go down the escalator, find my suitcase on the carousel, head outside the terminal, flag down my dad (or the driver he’d sometimes send), and that was all there was to it. Today, when I tell this to friends with young children, their jaws drop and they all say how fortunate I am that my face never graced the side of a milk carton. But hopping on a plane to see my father was the only thing I’d ever really known and it felt perfectly natural to me. I was a capable kid and I think the experience taught me to navigate the world with a degree of independence and flexibility and fearlessness that still serves me well.
Back home in Minnesota, though, I was a boy with one dream and one dream only: I wanted—no, strike that, I was desperate for—a room of my own. You see, in those days I shared a room with my little brother, Jesse, and it wasn’t pretty. He was the Oscar to my Felix: messy, careless, and just a little bit sticky—exactly the way a kindergartner is supposed to be. I, on the other hand, was a triple Virgo: frighteningly organized and utterly meticulous—exactly the way a controlling 5th-grade neat freak is supposed to be. I wanted the laundry stacked, sorted, and put away the second it came out of the dryer, whereas my brother lived happily with stuff tossed all over the place. The only LEGO-free zone I was able to maintain was my bed, and believe me, I made it flawlessly. Even as a 10-year-old, I remember trying to explain to my mother and stepfather how upset and frustrated a messy room made me. But they just couldn’t grasp it. They wanted me to be playing with baseballs and frogs while I wanted to be scouring garage sales.
I don’t know if my mother simply got fed up with refereeing the epic battles between Jesse and me or if it was starting to dawn on her that I just wasn’t a baseball-and-frog kind of guy, which is what I’d told her when she signed me up for T-ball. Actually, I believe the exact quote was, “I don’t like direct sunlight, I don’t like the feeling of grass under my feet, and I don’t like mosquitos, so I don’t know why you think I’m going to enjoy a summer of this!” But my parents more than made up for it in the fall, giving me the greatest present I could’ve ever imagined for my 13th birthday. Forget the savings bonds, fountain pens, and Kiddush cup that most Bar Mitzvah boys receive, my mother and stepfather announced that they would be allowing me to renovate an unfinished section of the basement—concrete floors and no drywall—and turn it into my own bedroom.
Moving into a space that I could call mine and, even better, watching it gradually take shape was a major turning point for me. I was involved in every single design decision. The rest of our house may have been done in French Country, but my bedroom was going to be grays, blacks, and reds—a subterranean oasis of the urban ’80s in the dead-center of suburban Minnesota. During class, I sat staring at the clock, waiting for the afternoon bell to ring. Most kids race home to play video games or kick a soccer ball; I ran all the way from the bus stop to see if my countertops had come in, or if the guys had installed the bathroom sink yet. In a matter of months, my bedroom had gray carpet with darker gray pin dots, built-in oak furniture with satin-nickel pulls, gray laminate countertops, pale gray grass-cloth wall covering, and a gray laminate bed with red-and-white bedding. The bathroom was white tile, with gray countertops and oak cabinets with a clear stain. You know, just your basic 13-year-old kid’s space circa 1984.
Without having this design laboratory of my own, I seriously doubt I would ever have had the confidence so many years later to make sweeping design decisions (let alone have other people foot the bill for them). Over the next few years, I must have rearranged that room a thousand times. Some kids spent their allowance going to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; I spent mine on a great-looking lamp I’d found at the flea market and a ceramic bowl from a neighborhood garage sale. Friends who came for sleepovers had no idea what they were in for. I would get a thought in my head about where I wanted my bed to go or I’d become fixated on gluing something to the ceiling, and we’d get to work—sometimes for hours.
I couldn’t leave that bedroom alone. I reorganized. I reinterpreted. I reframed. I had three bookshelves and my idea of a really good time was to remove all the dust covers from my books, then put them back on, just to see how they looked. Even more thrilling, my bedroom connected to the small storage room where my stepfather kept his tools. I’d get an idea, like, maybe, hanging a canopy over my bed, and before you could say “popcorn ceiling,” I’d be up on a stepladder with a sheet, a staple gun, and a pocketful of thumbtacks. The vast majority of my teen years was spent trying to make that sheet hang from the ceiling, all the while thinking, There’s got to be a way to do this. Just as I would do sixteen years later on The Oprah Winfrey Show, I’d prepare my own “reveal” moments, dragging my barely patient mother into the basement and flinging open the door to show how new and improved the place looked with the bed in this corner and the bookshelves in that corner. Sometimes she was kind enough to shriek, “Oh my God!” but as a designer, she also had the wherewithal to call a spade a spade and say, “That doesn’t work for me at all.”
Copyright © 2012 by Nate Berkus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.